Monthly Archives: January 2011
In early May, the Sardinian summer season is slowly kicking off. The atmosphere’s halcyon, the sky cerulean, the waters clear and flowers exploding with colour everywhere you look, yet the tourist hordes have yet to land. It’s paradise.
One typically fine morning, Monsieur and I drove to Porto Rotondo, a village with impressive marina just south of the Emerald Coast in Sardinia’s north-west. It’s by no means ancient; farmers and fisherman inhabited the locale until prominent architect, Luigi Vietti arrived to design the village in the 1960s. He and his team of developers set to work, building hotels and apartments, boutiques and moorings and all the amenities a wealthy holidaymaker might demand. Love him or hate him, Silvio Berlusconi likes it here; he has a holiday home on the cliffs above the town. (If you’re into a bit of Silvio-spotting, I’ve heard it’s the one with several carabinieri cars permanently parked at the gate.)
Porto Rotondo is a curious place. It has a slick, artificial feel to it, with the tangible yet conflicting element of deep relaxation. The people don’t walk, they amble, whilst smiling in a slow, easy way. The streets are cobbled and inlaid with modern mosaic patterns, the church of San Lorenzo (patron saint of cooks) resembles an overturned hull and there’s a granite amphitheatre for the entertainment of culture vultures. The marina is a tribute to luxury pleasure boats, filled with every type of exclusive vessel imaginable, from fat, white gin palaces to wood-panelled speed boats and tall, classic schooners. Boat brokers are two-a-penny here and you can see why. There’s plenty of business to be had.
When I remember our visits to Porto Rotondo, it’s the perfect breakfasts that come to mind. Monsieur and I discovered a quiet, traditional eatery overlooking a quiet section of the marina, and there we’d sit of a morning, the tranquillity seeping into our souls.
The owners of the Bar-Gelateria del Molo have proudly hung the date of its establishment above the doorway: 1950. They’re evidently proud to have been here before Signor Vietti; quite possibly they fed and watered him as the village grew into a pleasure port. Our breakfasts there were simple – perfect shots of Italian espresso, hot and creamy with a proper Continental kick, tall, cool glasses of freshly-squeezed orange juice and soft, buttery croissants to start the day. At €10.00 a head for this simple breakfast, you might argue that it’s not great value, but Monsieur and I would disagree. The location is unbeatable, the staff welcoming, the views spectacular. The memory makes my heart slow in the most calming of ways.
Endearingly, outside the Bar-Gelateria del Molo is parked a tiny Italian delivery buggy of bright buffed red. In a wink to days of yore, there’s a wicker basket strapped to the back. I hope it’s tasked with carrying picnics to seaward-bound gin palaces, for it would be a complete waste to stay at home and order delivery food in Porto Rotondo, when you could so easily wander down to this refreshingly unpretentious bar with the perfect view. The del Molo certainly provides the quintessential Italian breakfast of quality, but I imagine it’s equally glorious for a cocktail at sunset, or a wicked lick of stracciatella on a hot afternoon.
Sitting here in the grey of January in London, the simple act of recalling breakfasts at the Bar-Gelateria del Molo warms me through. If that isn’t a glowing reference for an eatery, I don’t know what is. So, promise me, please, that if you find yourself in Sardinia one early May, you’ll make your way to Porto Rotondo and, even if it’s just the once, you owe it to yourself to breakfast by the marina. For the oft-harassed escapee from the hamster wheel of the Western World, this is a tonic not to be missed.
Paris on 27th December last was cold. Bitterly cold. It was so horribly cold that I figured Jack Frost was out and about, only this time on on steroids. In spite of coats and scarves and gloves with thermal lining it was too cold to venture across town in search of an evening meal; on this, Monsieur and I were agreed. Any sort of food-seeking trek was out of the question, however, in a demonstration of true courage (motivated by hunger) we did eventually manage to leave the hotel, although no further than crossing the street.
Luckily for us, on the rue de l’Isly, where we were staying, there were a few restaurants that had fairly decent internet reviews, including Certa - an informal bar-cum-restaurant. In our big, winter coats we ended up walking out of the warm hotel, several yards across the chilly street and straight into Certa. Our coats came off again mere minutes after we’d put them on.
The front of Certa was for drinking, filled with low, informal clusters of chairs, sometimes with a small table, and generally populated by hip young things with cocktails. As we’d indicated that we were here for dinner, our waitress led us to a table at the rear of the establishment, where the serious sport of eating was dealt with. We were the only tourists (pseudo-tourists at that, as Monsieur is genuine French produce); back here the people ranged in age from six to sixty and there was a happy burble of conversation in the air.
Unfortunately, that same waitress looked after us for most of the evening. If it was cold outside, it grew colder every time she passed by. This girl was so grumpy, surly and devoid of courtesy that by the end of the evening, if I’d seen her crack even the glimmer of a smile, I would have fallen straight off my chair. She seemed to have been born without the pleasant gene. I hate that. Angry wait staff affect my digestion (I kid you not).Thankfully, Monsieur and I were at Certa to eat, not to make friends with the grinch in the apron.
It was happy hour. As all true bar-hoppers know, ‘happy hour’ can mean many things: two for ones, half-price bottles, discounts, free glasses, silly hats and vouchers. At Certa, happy hour meant that Monsieur’s beer was cheaper, and my small glass of house rosé was upgraded from a measly 150ml to a slightly less measly 200ml.
What can I say to that? Quite a lot, actually. France is a land of fine wine, filled to the gunnels with grapes, vines and vintners, but can you ever get a proper English-size 250ml glass of wine? Not on your Nellie. If you want 250ml of your favourite grape, you have to order a pichet or small carafe and if you’re not sharing, you might get a look as if you’ve fallen off the latest twelve step programme. I digress. I’d been looking forward to this particular glass all afternoon and 200ml, even if 50ml of that were free, simply did not cut it. Added to which, the aforementioned happy-happy-waitress prevented me from ordering a second glass through negligence, so 200ml had to last a whole two courses. That’s simply not the way I was raised.
So far, so bad. We had grumpster in charge of our supper and ridiculous happy hour ‘bargains’. Heaven only knew what the food would be like.
Monsieur and I both decided that the Salade Italienne sounded good so ordered a matching pair as starters. We expected a modest selection of salad and antipasti. Instead, our plates arrived piled high with ingredients – like a small Matterhorn of Italian foodstuffs. The price per salad was misleadingly modest for central Paris. What sat on the table before us now was remarkably good value. Perhaps we hadn’t made such a dire mistake by coming here. This Certa place was finally showing promise.
A pillow of crisp, green leaves peeped up at us from beneath a panoply of colours and textures. Folds of paper-thin prosciutto, wedges of avocado pear, grilled rounds of marshmallowy eggplant and a rainbow of marinated capsicum – just looking at the array made me think of Arcimboldo, the artist who invented the vegetable-face portrait. A dollop of creamy ricotta sat on one side of the plate, artichokes hid beneath greenery on the other. It’s not possible to assemble an Italian salad without tomatoes, so they were there, too. A mosaic of slim, hard cheese (parmesan? pecorino?) squares sat like a tumble of upturned scrabble squares atop all, a shower of pinenuts and balsamic vinegar completing the composition.
The presentation of our salades Italiennes might well have been impressive, but Monsieur and I bore the brows of concern. Our plan for a light meal looked as if it had just been blown out of the Seine. These salads were immense and we’d already ordered main courses. Ah well. The diet would have to start tomorrow.
Surprisingly, once our cutlery got busy, we found that the salads were lighter than we’d presumed. I finished every last bite of Italian goodness without a problem. Monsieur also cleaned his plate. And yes, there was still room at the inn. Our mains would not be wasted.
But first, Grumplestiltskin made a rare appearance. She cleared the table, grimacing in her attempt to leave us with our cutlery from the first course, only to realise that it was too covered in olive oil/balsamic/ricotta to rest on the table without causing mess that inevitably she would then have to clean up. With an audible harrumph, she removed the cutlery with the crockery and returned to drop new knives and forks on the table with the careless tingtingting of metal on metal. Grace was definitely not a virtue with which this waitress was endowed.
As a main, Monsieur had carefully selected a beef burger with fries and salad. I’d be lying if I said it looked inspired, but my own, private carnivore declared it excellent – both in the quality of ex-livestock, and the special, spicy sauce which looked disturbingly like thousand island dressing. Burger aside, if Monsieur’s happy, I’m happy, so, as he munched happily on his side of the table, I tucked into a plate of pommes de terre écrasées (roughly translated as squashed potatoes, not to be confused with mash) served with a drizzle of sour cream and a gluttonous spoonful of caviar.
For anyone who has not yet tried potatoes with sour cream and caviar, please do so immediately. The combination is Guilty Pleasure with capitals G and P. On the menu, the pommes de terre écrasées were listed as NEW, their description appearing in its own little text box and the proprietor must have been interested to see which of his patrons had ordered this wicked dish, for he appeared table-side, genial in plaid shirt, suggesting that I sprinkle some sel des algues, or seaweed salt, over the potatoes. “Yes, please!” I enthused. My advisor’s face lit up with joy, for he had an adventurous eater at his restaurant. Too soon, he disappeared back into the kitchen, just as I started flailing about like a shipwreck victim at sea, trying to gain the attention of the waitress so I could enjoy another (small) glass of rosé with the potatoes. Apparently quite the invisible woman, I failed in my quest for pink grape juice, but the potatoes were such a success that a smile slowly spread across my face and stayed there for some time after.
It won’t surprise you to hear that we weren’t asked whether we’d like dessert or coffee (we didn’t want either) or that Grumplestiltskin effectively forced us to approach the bar in order to pay (no bill was forthcoming). She managed to charge our card on a machine, return it with paper chit and effectively ignore both Monsieur and me as she carried on a grumpy little conversation with the barmaid. She did not thank us or wish us a good evening. In fact, she was such a fine example of how NOT to treat paying customers in a dining establishment that I’d have to say she’d turned it into an art.
Would we return to Certa? Even though the food was excellent, I’d have to say no. Firstly, Paris is overflowing with opportunities to eat well in environments non-conducive to Grumplestiltskin-style staff, so why go to Certa if you prefer to be treated like a visible human being? Secondly, I have since successfully made my own pommes de terres écrasées with sour cream and caviar, hence removing the need to revisit that meal option at Certa. Admittedly, if you’re stuck for somewhere to eat around the Gare Saint Lazare, Certa will tick a few boxes, but if, like me, you resent feeling like poodle poop on a Christian Louboutin heel when paying for food, this is a place to avoid.
***If you work at Certa and happen to read this, please note that, by the simple act of ignoring my husband and me, Grumplestiltskin shaved a potential of at least 2 desserts, 2 double espressos and a pichet of pale pink wine off your takings from our evening with you. Worse still, she has lost you the value of repeat business from a couple who often stay at the hotel just yards from your door. The bottom line is this: in tough economic times, restaurateurs can’t afford to pay staff who lose them money, even when the quality of what you serve is high. In summary, it’s time to lose the sourpuss. Can you really afford not to?
Almost everyone I know has a tequila story which invariably involves one or all of the following: bouncing off walls, falling off furniture, early-onset dementia (a.k.a. can’t remember getting home) or a clanger of a hangover. In my twenties I had one particular run-in with tequila that ensured I would not go back for more for over a decade, and even now only in Mexican restaurants, with food, in moderate consumption whilst discussing the attributes of a reposado versus an anejo. My, how times change.
Cue last summer, when Monsieur and I found ourselves perusing a drinks menu at a bar in Cap Ferret. It had been a long, hot day of filing my nails (not really) at the beach and an ice cold lager was now overdue and requisite imbibement.
Scanning the list of beers, I spotted one I didn’t recognise.
“What’s a Desperado?” I asked my Walking French Dictionary, a.k.a. Monsieur,
“You.” he quipped. Ha-blooming-ha, Frogman.
“No seriously, what is it?”
“It’s a DesperaDOS,” he corrected, heavy on the last syllable, “it’s beer with tequila in it.”
As ever, when confronted by something different on a menu, as yet untried and preferably not involving animal innards, I was intrigued. I became DESPERATE to try the DESPERADOS so ordered one, tapping my feet beneath the table in impatient anticipation.
At long last my Desperados arrived, cool with condensation and deep red saloon-style branding running up its side. For some reason its overall presentation made me think of ”Lucky Luke”, the cowboy who shoots faster than his shadow.
A wedge of lime sat in the bottle of the matching Desperados glass, obviously provided just in case a passer by was in any doubt as to what I was drinking. I reverently poured my recent liquid acquisition down the side of the glass, admired the perfect head and sipped. Ah, yes, just as I’d hoped, this would be a beer to remember.
The consistency was similar to a Corona, but the flavour was sweeter. Not as sweet as a lager shandy, perhaps, but sweeter in a citrussy sort of way, and, as lime doesn’t have this strong an influence on the taste of a Corona, this particular tang couldn’t be attributed to the presence of lime alone. The tequila was definitely in there, doing its work, but in a subtle, barely-there fashion, instead of a smack-your-head-in-with-force manner of a good-idea-at-the-time shot of the stuff at the wrong end of an evening. All I can say is this: it’s a very good thing that it isn’t widely available in England, or I’d be carrying this brew around in a brown paper bag.
As for the after-effects: apart from feeling refreshed in both body and spirit, there were none. Admittedly, I didn’t drink enough to bounce off walls or terrorise locals; I consumed the grand quantity of one bottle. As such, I can highly recommend tracking down a Desperados or two (can’t give expert advice on heavier consumption), especially if you find yourself near water on a balmy evening. Despite its unfortunate and misleading name, this is a truly transporting thirst-quencher. Drink it from beneath your sombrero before tucking into a cactus salad and platter of mole and you may just spot a cartoon cowboy out of the corner of one eye. I did. My first Desperados may have been consumed on the West Coast of France, but like magic it took me all the way to Mexico. At the bar price of €4.50, that was one delicious and affordable trip and as the days lengthen, I look forward to making it again. And again. And again and again and again (you get my drift).
Even as a child, I didn’t have much patience for sand castles. ‘What’s the point?’ I wondered, ‘in spending painstaking hours building crenellations, filling moats and adorning walls with shells, when all the effort would only be destroyed by (a) someone’s careless foot, (b) a galumphing dog off its lead or (c) the incoming tide?’ I was far happier torturing hermit crabs or sea anemones in rock pools.
Even so, there are some talented folk out there who both possess the patience for sculpting sand and artistic skill. Two such folk create masterpieces of sand far from any beach in Giverny, the village where pilgrims paying homage to the late, great Claude Monet flock in their hundreds of thousands each year. They are Chris Avril and Jean-Pierre Porchez, whose compositions exhibit talent, perseverance and poise. To stumble upon their sculptures is a pleasant surprise in a place like Giverny, where there are altogether too many mediocre art works hanging in galleries designed to lure the tourist.
Here are the artistes:
And this is their new take on The Last Supper:
A close up of Christ and friends:
I think the bulbous items on the ‘table’ may be a carafe of wine and a bread roll, but can’t be certain. In any case, it’s hardly enough to sustain a group of thirteen.
Across the way we spot some more bearded chaps – this time, artistic heroes.
This man with palette in hand is Renoir.
And this is Monsieur Monet, the reason we were all in Giverny that late September day. To the left is Gustave Caillebotte, a great friend and contemporary of Monet, and to the right is the poor, tortured Vincent Van Gogh.
From left to right we have Renoir, Pissaro, Berthe Morisot ( a female impressionist cleverly breaking up all that maleness exuding from the sand), Sisley and Caillebotte again.
The exhibition of sand sculptures was free to view and no one seemed to be guarding the fragile creations, yet thankfully there were no galumphing dogs in sight, and all who stepped in to visit left their careless feet at the gate. In fact, when Monsieur and I were there, all were speechless with awe at the hours of painstaking work on display. The question that nobody dared ask, however, was ‘what’ll happen when it rains?’ and this is Normandy, so rain it will. My guess is that Chris and Jean-Pierre will wait for the storm to pass before quietly fetching their buckets and spades and starting from scratch. Admirable, really, to be that patient, not to mention ingenious to create a gallery of sand in a painter’s village.
One of the most enriching aspects of being half of a Franco-Kiwi partnership is the opportunity to always have more to learn about the other culture. Monsieur definitely understands how dull his life was before meeting his wife and witnessing her Jekyll-and-Hyde behaviour during All Blacks games. Inspired by my passion for men in black, my dear, sweet husband now knows all the rules of the rugby (thank you so much, Mr Wikipedia) and tells me often that ”France is gonna kick your esssssss at the World Cup”. If you don’t follow rugby, shame on you. FYI the RWC is coming up later on this year with key matches (read: when The All Blacks thrash France) already entered into all calendars and is predicted to be an interesting stage in our fledgling marriage.
Rugby aside, I’ve learned a great deal about French ways since meeting Monsieur – most of which they neglect to teach you in French studies at school or university. I make constant gaffes (or so I’m told because I also now realise how blunt the French can be when trying to re-educate hopeless antipodeans like moi, who are used to changing their cutlery with every course) and struggle with subjunctives and reflexives, but at the end of the day it’s all worth it when I discover some new (at least new to me) French tradition, like the eating of Galette des Rois on Epiphany.
For those readers who are more sinner than saint and don’t remember your Christian feast days, Epiphany celebrates the visit of the three wise men to baby Jesus, bringing with them as offerings gold, frankincense and myrrh. In France, Epiphany is celebrated on 6 January each year. It’s a big deal. At your favourite patisserie, you must buy a Galette des Rois, a type of sweet pastry flan filled with almond paste. Somewhere in each Galette lurks a tiny ceramic feve or charm, but only the pastry chef knows where. The flan is cut into slices, then one of the party is blindfolded and will point at random people in the group to indicate who gets the next slice. This is supposed to ensure fairness because sometimes a certain bulge in the galette may show where the charm is hiding.
Once everyone has a slice of Galette des Rois, eating begins with great ripples of anticipation coursing through the air: who will find the charm? It’s not just the kids who get excited. Before long, some lucky soul will bite into something hard in the midst of the soft almond filling “C’est moi! C’est moi!” they’ll exclaim, and will now become king or queen for a day, wearing a paper crown kindly offered by the patisserie with every Galette des Rois sold.
I first encountered this tradition when Monsieur’s maman invited us to an Epiphany party one year. Monsieur won the charm that time, gallantly asking me to be his queen – what an old softie.
This year, I decided to arrange an Epiphany celebration of our own – just the two of us. I tracked down a Galette des Rois at Paul, raced across town after work to collect it (there’s no decent patisserie near where I work, which is quite the cultural desert, as opposed to dessert) then dashed home to create a Frenchified evening. We made another type of galette that night – the brown savoury ones so popular in Britanny - filled with smoked salmon and salmon roe, chives and creme fraiche, or lightly smoked slivers of French bacon oozing with golden melted cheddar and an egg. I always find galettes rather filling, even though we never have more than two apiece, so we lightened our intake and ingested most of our five-a-day requirement with a big helping of salad before finally approaching the Galette des Rois.
I blindfolded Monsieur (nothing kinky), then he chose a piece for each of us. The charm was in neither, so we had to wait until the next day to try again as there was no capacity for two slices in that one evening. Monsieur won. I knew he would. He cheats. This time, his technique was to play a mind game on his poor, unsuspecting, defenceless wife (sob, sniff), so that she would allow him to have the piece with the tell-tale bulge. What was the charm this time? A small, ceramic crown, just big enough for a mouse to wear. Where is it now? In the bin. By accident. On purpose. Monsieur isn’t sentimental like me and didn’t see the point of keeping it to turn into a Christmas decoration. Luckily, Paul sold spares, and pre-empting my husband’s attempt at ‘feng shui’ (better chuck the charm), I’d already ensured that my Christmas decoration idea was taken care of. In a little round box, shaped like a golden crown, I had 5 beautiful little ceramic charms, just waiting to hang on the tree in December.
Then, on twelfth night, January 6 2012, we’ll have another Galette des Rois, just as we take the decorations down.
Once more, we’ll have French treats. Once more, Monsieur will probably win the charm. The difference will be in managing to confiscate the charm the second the crown lands on Monsieur’s head. You see, I plan to make a tradition of turning every year’s charm into a decoration, and that will require sharp eyes and quick hands, to grab the charm and ensure that Monsieur goes nowhere near the bin.